Exhibit highlights journeys into photography, sculpture down different, parallel paths 

At first glance, the wide-lens photographs taken by Walter Nelson and the collage-like images by Phil Stein couldn't differ more. However, it takes more than an initial glimpse to discover the parallels of these artists' work.

Both artists incorporate the uniqueness of landscape "? an aspect that prompted an upcoming art exhibit showcasing their works, opening Friday at Untitled [ArtSpace], 1 N.E. Third.


"In exhibiting them together, you're showing the audience that there are all kinds of ways to look at the same thing," said Jon Burris, the gallery's executive director. "It's just showing the uniqueness of each of these artists."

In his "Streets" collection, Stein, an advertising photographer from Bethlehem, Pa., layered different-angled photos of New York City street scenes, creating a 3-D, pixelated effect, influenced by the fragmented images often seen in online video streams.

"If you love old school "¦ this series is very much based on that," Stein said. "It's also based on cubism. I have taken that and incorporated it with the rhythms that you see on the Internet. People see this so much in their daily lives that they don't even know it."

He creates a subconscious connection with the audience because they may not immediately realize why the pixelation appears so familiar, Burris said. "He's just aware of technology, and he's utilizing technology to really create an image that we're familiar with, but maybe not immediately familiar with."

Nelson, on the other hand, presents less-abstract images that emphasize the vastness of landscapes in "The Darwin Shrines," which includes 32 photographs and installation art. Upon the death of his Australian heeler, the Abiquiu, N.M., local created and photographed memorial shrines to his 15-year canine companion in various spots as he traveled through New Mexico, Texas and Europe.

The painter, sculptor and former commercial photographer initially set out to create only two shrines, but instead, he ended up constructing 17 of them over a two-and-a-half-year period. He never intended to turn it into a photography project, either. It simply started as a way to release his grief.

"It was basically more of a documentation. I was just out there because it was a connective element between nature and Darwin," Nelson said. "People said, 'You've got to photograph it.'"

And so he did. Nelson spent anywhere between a day and two weeks constructing each shrine, using rocks, sand, leaves, grass, wood and other materials indigenous to each location, scattering some of Darwin's ashes on each one.

But the shrines haven't stopped simply with the photographs. Nelson also constructed five shrines in the gallery as part of the exhibit. He used many of the same natural elements as the ones he photographed, but he also added some unique touches. One dark-maroon shrine suspends from the ceiling with hemp, making a complete rotation every minute. 

Displaying both Stein's and Nelson's work together fulfills the mission of the art gallery, Burris said.

"Our mission is to bring work in that you might not normally see and to get you think in new ways of seeing," he said. "This is a perfect example of what we do. Both of them are drawing from their immediate backgrounds for influence "¦ just in unique ways."                     

Walter Nelson's aged Western drawl sounds half in and half out of this world. In a recent interview, his description of his series of shrines dedicated to his dog was scattered, sometimes rambling, but also strikingly spiritual and sentimental. In the end, the artist's puzzlingly elaborate process of building 18 shrines spread out across New Mexico, Texas and Europe congealed into an unexpectedly lucid gesture of friendship to a fallen pet.

Perhaps it isn't accurate to call Darwin Augustus Perth simply a "pet." Dogs might be known as man's best friend, but it would still be a stretch for most owners to trek into the countryside for weeks in a mystical journey of creation. Nelson carried only hemp with him when he sought out natural supplies for the shrines, which could end up being simple rock formations that took a day to create or an elaborate found art sculpture with tied-together sticks surrounded by concentric circles tramped out in the dirt.

"It was December and cold as hell. I spent a day walking out into the landscape picking up rocks," Nelson said, describing the process of building one shrine. "I finally brought the rocks back at 4 to 5 o'clock in the morning. I started washing all these rocks, got all the dirt off them. Then I started sorting the rocks. I didn't know what I was going to do. This kind of art just happens; it just flows. You can't intellectualize it; it's from the heart."

He finished each piece by "honoring the four directions with the fifth direction being the shrine." Meditation played an important role in the shrines, since the day that Perth died, Nelson began Buddhist meditation. The culminating shrine was at the Seine River in Paris.

"I had Buddhist prayer scarves that I cut up and put his ashes into, photographed them on a concrete bridge, then threw them in the air and photographed them as they were falling into the Seine," he said. "It was an unbelievable release of anguish, grief and pain to go out and create these things with only the natural elements."

The Untitled [ArtSpace] exhibition features paintings and photographs of the shrines. Nelson traveled to Oklahoma City a week early to build a shrine at the downtown gallery.

He said the number of shrines had no particular relevance, nor did the timing of his final shrine. He didn't anticipate when the mourning process would be over, but just knew that once the final shrine was done in Paris, he was ready to move onto the next project.

"If you overintellectualize something, then you stay with it too long and overdo it," Nelson said. "There is a point where the artist instinctively knows that it is finished."

He created another shrine for his sister when she passed away and hopes that one of his friends will do the same for him whenever he dies. He has returned to the Perth shrines to photograph images of how "they are re-entering the earth." Some of his shrines are maintained by locals who live nearby and have developed an emotional connection to the sculptures. Other shrines have aged, crumbled and shifted with the environment.

Nelson continues to create paintings based on the shrines, so his thoughts still linger on the dog with whom he developed a connection stronger than he's had with any human.

"There is an animal human relation that is deeper than a human/human relation," he said. "This was in his honor and was a wonderful relief. It was being in a place and being so intent into the spirituality of the place that when it rains on you, you never get wet. It just falls all around you, so you put up your hands and do a little dance."

"?Caitlin Harrison and Charles Martin

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